New study explains a secret to more efficient learning

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A new study could hold the key to learning languages, teaching children colors or even studying complex theories.

The research, published in Cognitive Science, adds to the existing evidence that adults, children and students of all ages learn better when seeing an object before hearing its description. The study builds on past research by focusing on learning in "inconsistent" environments featuring different teaching styles or distracting noises.

"Understanding how the learning process occurs, and what factors affect it, may help instructors improve methodologies of education," said Timmy Ma, a research associate at Dartmouth.

Learning environments can often complicate the . For example, a student taking a course with both a teacher and a teaching assistant needs to adapt to the ways the different instructors teach the same subject. Even the varying ways teachers talk and behave can complicate learning.

For the study, researchers intentionally provided confusing information to mimic these types of inconsistencies to subjects that were tasked to learn the names of three fictional characters—"yosh," "wug" and "niz"—using two types of learning methods.

The first method, "object-label learning," is when a student sees an object first and then is provided with the label. This means seeing a color before being told its name. Or hearing a description of a physical force before being hearing its formal title.

The second learning procedure is "label-object learning," the reverse order in which a sees a label first.

Subjects in the study were asked to match the pictures of the characters with their made-up names. The presentation of information was intentionally misleading to see if learners have an easier time dealing with the inconsistency depending on the way the input was presented—either object first or label first.

The results of the study indicate that students who see objects first and then hear the name—object-label learners—process inconsistent information better than learners who hear the name first and then see the object.

Researchers detected that learners that interact with the object before hearing the name perform "frequency boosting"—the ability to process noisy, inconsistent information to identify and use the most frequent rule.

For example, when teachers interchangeably use "soda" or "pop" to describe the name of a carbonated beverage, the children who use frequency boosting will learn to use the term that is used most frequently.

A key feature of frequency boosting is that learners will also use the rule more consistently than the instructor.

"When trying to teach a child about colors, such as blue or red, not many people think about the best way to do it. People just say this is blue and point to an object. From this research, we can say that the order of presentation actually matters and that seeing the object first creates a stronger association to the name," said Ma who conducted the research while a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Irvine.

The research team also used mathematical modeling to confirm the observations as well as provide a theoretical explanation as to why one type of learner is different from the other.

"This research combines experiments with a novel to show that object-label learners deal better with inconsistencies. It's exciting to see that the math theory explains the ," said Ma.

According to the research team, understanding how people learn could have broad applications. For example, foreign language learning programs could benefit from showing images before introducing the name of an object. The results can also be applied to math, science or any other subjects where students need to make similar associations.

Explore further

How does playing with other children affect toddlers' language learning?

More information: Timmy Ma et al, Object‐Label‐Order Effect When Learning From an Inconsistent Source, Cognitive Science (2019). DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12737
Journal information: Cognitive Science

Provided by Dartmouth College
Citation: New study explains a secret to more efficient learning (2019, July 24) retrieved 22 September 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jul 25, 2019
It's one of the few things that battle-scarred old experts in real-world L2 acqusition usually agree on: vocab-building counts for very little if the actual goal is the ability to converse with a native speaker in real time in real (street-) language about novel things.

Further, it's a fact that 'objects' (tables, chairs, books, etc.) are the least refractory items in the vocab list: the concrete nouns. Abstract concepts, such as time, love, democracy, interference, collusion, liar, etc.) need syntactic and pragmatic contexts. Function-words are hopeless, you just muddle along with lots of examples until those suckers start to sink in, and sometimes they can be frustratingly sound/start·off -alike and/or function-similar. I'm thinking of the Korean "kurom, kurigo, kuromyon, kurochiman..." rascals.

So, to get back to the article (articles, like 'the' and 'a'' are also ornery, come to think of it), fine. This will shave some ~2% off the acquisition time.

Jul 26, 2019
Yeah, but it seems to be a general improvement and even in single but complex subjects like languages the improvements should accrue at an exponential rate.

It looks piddling, but economical, IQ, health, age improvements goes like that. The current depth surveys on 70 years old here noted that they are as healthy as 50 years old were 20 years ago - stasis, in a way. And we currently age at a rate of 20.5 hours for every 24 hours compared with 20 years ago.

Jul 26, 2019
Actually this is a key to more efficient teaching, the students don't get to choose the order. If it were more efficient learning it would be something the students could do.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more